Sore Winners

The GOP seems determined to make representative government a game of 'winner-take-all'

Sore Winners
Illustration By Doug Potter

The new Republican order promises to be entertaining, in a morbid sort of way. Last week the U.S. Senate leadership was once again discussing the "nuclear option" in order to impose all of President Bush's federal judicial appointments on the country, instead of just 95% of them (203 have been confirmed, 10 have been blocked by Democratic filibusters). Determined to demonstrate that a 55-member majority equals unilateral power, they say they'll move simply to alter the rules on Senate debate, effectively abolishing the minority filibuster for voting on judges.

The week before, it was the House's turn to change the rules of the game in favor of the winners. Concerned by the possibility that Sugar Land's finest, Majority Leader Tom DeLay, might find himself under indictment in Travis Co., the House GOP caucus amended the rule requiring that a House member under indictment must step down from a leadership position until the matter is resolved. Now, should the grand jury's hammer fall on The Hammer, his colleagues will decide whether the indictment merits a public federal humiliation. Their Eminences shouldn't worry; humiliation will arrive regardless.

Closer to home, last week two defeated GOP state House candidates decided that Texas voters, otherwise so generous to Republicans, couldn't possibly have meant it when they rejected these two fine upstanding wannabes – even after recounts confirmed the voters' initial decision. One is Eric Opiela, a rookie barely out of UT Law School but with heavyweight Austin backing, who is challenging the election of Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles in District 35, near Corpus Christi. The other is more formidable: Houston's Talmadge Heflin, a 22-year incumbent and budget chair who lost to Democratic newcomer Hubert Vo in the District 149 race by just 32 votes. Both men say they will come to the House in January – where, not incidentally, the Republicans will hold an 87-63 majority, even without them – and ask their would-be colleagues to overturn the results and either seat them outright or order new elections.

Finally, this week our own local poor sport, District 50's Jack Stick, who lost to Democratic challenger Mark Strama, announced that he will be holding his breath until he turns blue, too. (San Antonio District 117 incumbent Ken Mercer, who lost narrowly to Democratic challenger David Leibowitz, considered but declined a challenge – deciding sensibly that such an action would be bad for his district.)

One or two such exercises in political overreaching might be considered a coincidence. But when coupled with the current style of Republicanism first perfected by Newt Gingrich – give no quarter and take no prisoners – it begins to look like a pattern.

Take Your Positions

That's not to say the co-religionists of the Losers Brigade in the House will automatically rubber-stamp the challenges. Judging from the initial Capitol reactions, the Republican leadership is not terribly eager to take up the cause, although at least in procedural terms they have no choice – the Speaker must appoint an investigating committee that will call witnesses and send a report to the full House. The House can seat either candidate or order a new election. According to the San Antonio Express-News, there have been 10 such challenges since the Forties, and only once did the House not seat the apparent winner, instead ordering a new election that amply confirmed the results of the first.

Certainly the challenges, however they proceed, will present a lingering public relations minefield for the GOP, although the last two years have shown that the elephants bear image problems with remarkable equanimity. Simply installing Heflin, Opiela – and now Stick – would take considerable chutzpah. But it may also have occurred to party strategists that with three challenges pending, it may be possible to finesse at least one of them, perhaps letting two youthful stalking horses fall on their swords for the sake of The Venerable Heflin.

The Democrats, on the other hand, wasted no time seizing the rhetorical high ground. "Nothing will disrupt the House more than a contentious, partisan election challenge at the beginning of session," declared House Dem caucus Chair Jim Dunnam. Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman pointed out that the Heflin and Opiela challenges seemed preoccupied with minority voters, and he decried "the cynical attempt to associate people of color with election fraud."

Let's Try Democracy

In that vein, it's additionally illuminating to see GOP super-lawyer Andy Taylor, hired gun for the Texas Association of Business against Ronnie Earle, who also argued successfully (at taxpayers' considerable expense) that Republican re-redistricting would not unduly (or at least illegally) disenfranchise state minority voters, now representing Talmadge Heflin in his attempt to overturn the first Texas House election to be won by a Vietnamese-American. The Houston Chronicle, which had endorsed Heflin, brooded grimly about the consequences to the GOP of Heflin's hubris. But Texas politicians – a historical category that includes plenty of Democrats – long accustomed to having their bread buttered by an otherwise oblivious majority, have never lost much sleep worrying over the consequences of their actions to minority voters.

As the state's demographics change (we are repeatedly informed), that too shall change. Maybe. In the meantime, whatever the outcome of the challenges, we will have to be entertained by the curious details of Texas voting practices certain to be revealed by a formal House investigation. Definitely something to look forward to. Perhaps one day a republic so delighted to lecture the Ukraine, and Venezuela, and the Palestinians, and Iraq, etc., etc., etc., on the salutary virtues of "democracy," will find a way to consistently import those virtues to what should be the signature celebration of its form of government, and is instead so often an embarrassment of incompetence, negligence, discrimination, and fraud. end story

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minority rights, U.S. Senate, filibuster, Tom DeLay, U.S. House, Eric Opiela, Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles, Talmadge Heflin, Hubert Vo, Jack Stick, Mark Strama, Ken Mercer, David Leibowitz, Andy Taylor

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